A new album by Scott Walker is an event in itself. The erstwhile pop crooner turned avant-gardist is noted for taking 11 years between albums. When free tickets were offered to a listening event to hear his new album Soused, the organisers were overwhelmed by demand. After a comparatively dizzying two-year turnaround, the new record is a collaboration with veteran drone makers Sunn O))), a pairing which has had the muso message boards salivating uncontrollably.
St John at Hackney Church is no stranger to religious fervour. It’s a church. Tonight its congregation is there to worship a different idol. A neon stack of £80,000 hi-fi equipment provided by McIntosh Labs has been set up to play the 49-minute record to them. The crowd’s tones are noticeably hushed from the outset.
It’s no surprise that the album begins with a surprise: a great swell of bright church organ, immediately confounding the expectation of the sludgy drones of Sunn O))), though these follow, impossibly dark and smouldering. A baroque painting of drones, odd percussion with bells and whips, whistles, and brutal guitar noises, through which Walker’s pained baritone soars and dips, by turns roaring and aching, even pleading. Especially in this hallowed space, the record feels like a dark prayer to no God.
A comic distraction from the reverie comes half way through. A woman lumbering up to the altar, gyrating intensely with the music, removes three layers and a bag, and commences what I can only describe as dancing. There’s always one, isn’t there? At length two staff members try to move her off. She sinks and goes limp, and they can’t drag her body. It’s hopeless and hilarious.
The crowd suddenly takes her side: “Let her dance!” A few minutes later the music becomes more static. She sits a while, and departs. With this episode of the absurd interrupting, but arising directly out of, the deep spell of concentration and seriousness, tonight’s listening event shares the reflexive quality that the Quietus noted in both Scott Walker and in Sunn O))) “what makes their music feel sublime can also make it seem ridiculous.”
Soused is sublime, ridiculously sublime, sublimely ridiculous. It is very much a Scott Walker album, but with more drones and no orchestra. Less scary than his ballet music, but more danceable.
Review of Scott Walker + Sunn O))) Soused listening event St John at Hackney Church on Tuesday 14 October/ 4 November, 2014